Staying Fit: A Routine Matter for Seniors

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Staying fit doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated but it should be a routine matter for Seniors. You don’t have to join a gym where everyone is 20 years old and wears body-fitting shorts and tops, or join the kind of hiking club where the group starts at 6 a.m. to get to the top of the mountain by noon.

Arthritis Foundation Exercise Seniors fitness zone

There are several easy exercises that can keep you healthy; some can even be done at home using a chair or wall. A fitness regimen can include activities you do as part of your daily life, such as gardening or dancing. Many find joining a class with other seniors gives them structure, motivation and a way to meet others. The key is to maintain a schedule that becomes routine.

Benefits of Exercise

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) lists several benefits for exercise and physical activity. They can help:

  • Maintain and improve your physical strength and fitness
  • Improve your ability to do everyday activities
  • Improve your balance
  • Manage and improve diseases like diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis
  • Reduce feelings of depression and may improve mood and overall well-being

Two Seniors Reap the Rewards

Two older adults who maintain a regular fitness schedule add another benefit: improving your social network. Georgiann Ash, of West Virginia, has participated in Silver Sneakers exercise classes five days a week for more than five years. She enrolled in Silver Sneakers, a national fitness program for older adults, through her Humana HMO. The program is available through Medicare health plans, Medicare Supplement carriers and group retiree plans. Classes use chairs, hand-held weights, elastic tubing with handles, balls and kickboards for a gentle-on-the-joints workout.

Doing cardio and strength exercises, the 78-year-old has become strong enough to do her own housework, laundry and yard work, while lowering her cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In the class, Ash also found a group that emotionally supported her during a difficult time when her daughter and son had health crises.

“As you get older, you lose friends and family,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t feel like going to the Y and have to push yourself. But you go anyway and are glad you did because of the exercise and morale.”

Ash’s doctor was so impressed with her physical improvement that he started recommending the Silver Sneakers program to other elderly patients. ”He calls me the queen of Silver Sneakers,” she jokes.

Similarly, Frank “Ted” Redman is part of a group of seniors who walk together three days a week and are fortunate enough to enjoy a scenic place to exercise: along the river that flows through Boise, Idaho, where they often encounter deer. “We walk in winter, rain or shine,” he says, although some of the group prefers the mall on cold days.

Redman, 77, started walking after he had back surgery for sciatica and his doctor told him to “walk, walk, walk.” Since he’s started his walking program, he has had no problems with his back. He also suffers from emphysema, so three other days of the week, he and his wife, Barbara, attend a Silver Sneakers program, also through Humana, that emphasizes muscle strength, balance and cardio.

Since they started the program, his emphysema has not progressed, while Barbara has lost 60 pounds and “feels great, healthy.”

The couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in December. “We started together because we figured we needed to be doing something [about our health],” says Barbara, 75.

“I wish everyone could do what we are doing—keep active,“ she says. In addition, echoing Ash’s comments, “People tend to be isolated, so this keeps us in contact with people.”

Four Types of Exercise

The NIA breaks down exercise into four types, although some of them overlap: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Most of us focus on one type, but combining them provides a comprehensive insurance policy for our health and body.

Endurance, or aerobic, exercise increases your breathing and heart rate. Activities include brisk walking, yard work, swimming, dancing, biking or climbing stairs or hills. By keeping your heart, lungs and circulatory system healthy, endurance activities delay or prevent many diseases common in older adults such as diabetes and heart disease. Building your endurance makes it easier to carry out many of your everyday activities.

Strength exercises make your muscles stronger. Even small increases in strength can make a big difference in your ability to stay independent and carry out everyday activities such as climbing stairs and carrying groceries.

Balance exercises, such as standing on one foot and tai chi, help prevent falls, a common problem in older adults. Many lower-body strength exercises will also improve your balance.

Flexibility exercises, such as yoga and stretching, can help your body stay limber. Being flexible gives you more freedom of movement for other exercises as well as for your everyday activities.

Simple Exercises

You can do these exercises at home (from “Basic Exercises for Seniors,” and “11 Easy Exercises You Can Do Today,” Everyday Health).

Strength: For strengthening leg muscles, stand upright with legs shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on your hips. Starting with your right foot, step forward about 18 inches. Bend your right knee slightly, then step back with your right foot to the standing position. Step forward with your left foot. Repeat five to 10 lunges for each leg.

You can modify traditional push-ups by doing wall push-ups. Face a blank wall while standing about arm’s length away, lean forward and press your palms flat against the wall. Bend your arms and slowly bring your upper body toward the wall, hold for a moment and push yourself back until your arms are straight again. Do a set of 10, rest and repeat another set.

Arm curls will strengthen the muscles involved with everyday activities such as lifting ordinary objects like a suitcase or a gallon of water. Either seated or standing, hold hand weights down at your sides with palms facing up and elbows tucked in, then bend your elbows and lift the weights toward your chest. Hold each repetition for about 1 second, then slowly lower the arms. Do a set of 10, rest and repeat another set.

For lower body strength, squat in front of a sturdy chair. Keep your arms in front of you and bend to an almost-sitting position. Hold the position for a few moments, then raise yourself back to a standing position. Take a breather and repeat for two sets of 10 repetitions.

Flexibility: Focus on arm and chest muscles by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms at your sides, then bring both arms behind your back and grasp hands. With your shoulders pulled back, hold the move for about 30 seconds, release and repeat.

Another helpful stretch starts in the same standing position, but this time clasp your hands in front. Turn your hands so the palms face the ground and bring your arms up to shoulder height. Press your palms outward, away from the body, and hold the move for about 30 seconds, release and repeat.

To stretch your quadriceps, start by standing behind a chair and grabbing it with your right hand. Bend your left leg behind you and grab your foot with your left hand. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, or long enough that you feel the stretch in the front of the thigh. Release the foot and repeat on the other side.

Balance: Start in a seated position in an armless chair. Keeping your back and shoulders straight, extend your arms parallel to the ground and slowly stand up, without using your hands. Sit down and repeat the move 10 to 15 times. Rest and then complete another set of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Another balance exercise is to stand upright and raise both arms straight out to your sides at shoulder height. Focus on a spot on the wall ahead of you to help you stay steady. Stepping slowly, put one foot in front of the other. When you take a step, lift your back leg slightly off the floor and hold it for a count of one before taking the next step. Begin with 10 steps and then increase the amount.

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